The original TRLA program – known as Texas Rural Legal Aid – was created in 1970 by the Texas Trial Lawyers Association with federal funding for nine deep South Texas counties. The “founding father” was James DeAnda of Corpus Christi, who later became the Chief Judge of the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas.
Texas Rural Legal Aid joined several programs previously established in mostly urban areas, such as Austin, San Antonio, Corpus Christi, Laredo and El Paso. All of these programs were subsequently funded through a new federal agency, the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), when it was established in 1974. Over the next few years, groups such as Texas Rural Legal Aid, Coastal Bend Legal Services, and Legal Aid of Central Texas expanded into adjoining rural counties. During that time Bexar County Legal Aid, the El Paso Legal Aid Society, and the Laredo Legal Aid Society remained as single-county urban legal services programs. By 1980, every county in Texas had some level of “access” to civil legal services. At the time federal funding almost reached an early goal established by LSC – to have sufficient funding to provide one lawyer for every 5,000 eligible clients in the country.
With the advent of the Reagan administration in 1980 came a period of uncertainty. The administration first attempted to eliminate federal funding for legal aid services altogether, but Congress insisted that the program be continued. The administration next tried to destroy the program from within by appointing a board and hiring staff that were hostile to the purposes for which the program was created. Federal funding was cut by one-third during this period and programs were subjected to intense scrutiny.
Some modest increases in funding occurred during the Clinton administration, but LSC never recovered to the levels of funding that existed in 1980. There was another effort to eliminate the program by the Congress, resulting in new restrictions on LSC grantees (on attorneys fees, class actions, representation of prisoners, lobbying, redistricting, etc.) and reduced funding in 1996.
However, state funding in Texas began to come on line, the first being monies from Interest-On-Lawyers-Trust-Accounts (aka “IOLTA”), a program implemented by the Texas Supreme Court in 1984. The Texas Equal Access to Justice Foundation was established to administer the IOLTA funds and later became the funding conduit for all state funding.
In 2002, at the direction of the Legal Services Corporation, four legal aid programs previously serving the Austin area (Legal Aid of Central Texas), San Antonio (Bexar County Legal Aid Society), the Corpus Christi, Laredo, and Victoria areas (Coastal Bend Legal Services) and El Paso (El Paso Legal Aid Society) merged with the original Texas Rural Legal Aid program to create a new agency that doubled the size of its clientele. To reflect the merger, the organization’s name was changed to Texas RioGrande Legal Aid (TRLA). In the year of the merger, TRLA provided civil legal services to more than 25,000 low-income clients, with services ranging from brief advice and counseling to extensive litigation in state and federal courts.